Horses are natural grazers, and therefore receive the bulk of their nutritional needs through forage. However, horse ownership means a degree of confinement behind fencing, so horses are fed hay. With the vast selection of hay on the market, which hay contains the most protein for horses?
Depending on your horse’s individual needs and supplemental feeding program, you may have several options to choose from. Nutritionists recommend horses consume approximately 1.5%-2% of their body weight in forage per day. If consuming enough hay forage daily, even grass hays may provide adequate protein intake for horses.
Hay is for Horses! Nutritional Content of Forage
Unlike humans, horses’ diets are restricted to seasonal and regional grass growth, accompanied by what we provide. This means the bulk of their nutrition comes from forage. When purchasing hay, sellers or feed stores may offer you “test” results for the hay cutting you are purchasing.
Depending on what the grower had tested, this paperwork can reveal vital information about your horse’s nutritional intake. Typically, horse owners will examine dry matter results for moisture, digestible energy (mega calories), crude protein, acid detergent fiber (ADF), neutral detergent fiber, and sometimes essential minerals, micronutrients, and nonstructural carbohydrates (sugars and starches). Regional soil deficiencies, production methods, and climate restrictions can greatly impact these results.
Importance of Protein in Horses
Although protein intake is frequently associated with performance horses and muscle development, protein helps all horses’ bodily functions. Protein assists in nutrient transport, metabolic regulation, buffers to maintain pH regulation, immune system support, and overall growth and repair.
Fats and carbohydrates are easily turned into energy, whereas protein is more difficult to utilize. In addition, horses do not store protein in their bodies for later use. Even though protein requirements will change depending on age, health, and exertion, too much protein can cause health issues. There is no set recommendation for protein consumption, but most horses maintain well at 8-10%, with some increase for heavily working, lactating, or growing horses.
Best Hay for Horses with the Most Protein
When analyzing hay, you will notice not all regions and climates can grow multiple varieties of hay. Hay choice may be limited due to geographical location unless it is being transported into your area. Legume hays are typically higher in protein, as well as calcium, and contain more digestible nutrients.
- Alfalfa is a popular choice for supplemental feeding, due to its high fiber and high crude protein content. However, it provides up to 120% more energy than oat hay, and can “heat up” horses. Approximate crude protein minimum: 16%.
- Timothy hay is one of the grass hays with higher protein content, sitting at approximately 10% minimum crude protein. Orchardgrass and Bermuda grass hays are similar to Timothy but have even less protein content. Bermuda contains a crude protein minimum of 8%, while Orchard contains a crude protein minimum of 7%.
- Both oat hay and forage hay have higher fiber, but lower protein content. Approximate crude protein minimum: 7%.
Protein Supplements for Horses
- Manna Pro Cool Omega 40+: Equine Dry Fat and Protein Supplement. Rich in protein, fiber, and Omegas 3 & 6 from flaxseed. It is designed to meet the requirements of peak performance horses.
Uckele Tri Amino Supplement: It helps maintain strong muscles, healthy weight, and supports a healthy top-line with the three most essential amino acids (lysine, methionine, and threonine).
AniMed L-Lysine for Horses: Recommended for horses whose diets are low in alfalfa, clover, and soy.
Things to Remember
If you have questions about your hay and the seller does not offer test results, you can send in a sample of the forage to a lab. Good resources for equine nutrition and hay composition include your equine vet and agriculture extension agents. Be sure to share this article with your horse friends!